Books

03.26.14

The Queen of the French Kitchen

Before Ducasse, before Bocuse, there was La Mère Brazier, whose cooking was the ultimate in rich hedonism.

Deep in the volcanic gullet of France, on the swollen banks of two rivers fat with fish and krill, in a land sweetened by sod and loamy truffle clods, Lyon squats with its bouchons and charcuteries, a gastronome's glutted mirage. This is not Paris, elite capital of elegant cafés, ville of dainty macarons and delicate glaciers—this a town belonging to the butchers and the traders, to the silk workers’ guild and the workaday Quai Saint-Antoine, where fishmongers and oyster stalls rowdily hawk their rough wares. A mercantile burg, a blue-collar town, where communal lunchtime tables at the city’s convivial inns groan under glistening sausages, duck cracklings, fried dough, and every kind of offal under the sun—black pudding with roasted apples, hearty pâtés, pig’s trotters, breaded tripe smothered in sauce gribiche—all washed down with tankards of Beaujolais and shots of plum Armagnac. Rabelais wrote Gargantua here, in this city devoted to the most Pantagruelian of pleasures. Where Paris brings to mind the grand hôteliers, toiling in the finicky tradition of Escoffier and Carême, entertaining for emperors and kings, Lyon evokes the gulous meal and the family chef, culling the vegetable garden for a thick country potage. Here, we find cuisine paysanne, not cuisine de cours. Here, we find temples to all things earthy and porcine. Here, we find La France profonde.

Here we also find l’homme rotund, or at least we used to, back in the days when the city’s 19th-century dining clubs wouldn’t admit any chap weighing less than 175 pounds and bon vivants were charged according to their grosseur (five centimes a kilo). At these same clubs, lucky tradesmen got to gorge themselves on “Venus’s nipples”—giant quenelles molded into the shape of ethereal breasts and areoles. Since that time, Vieux Lyon has been a gourmand’s Jerusalem, a savory Santiago de Compostela, with pilgrims following a route marked not by cockle shells but by the trail of three-star auberges studded along the countryside down the autoroute from Mâcon like plump little lardons.

These étapes gastronomiques specialize in what the French like to call cuisine de bonne femme—sturdily straightforward dishes, made from the bounty of the local farmer’s market and the choicest catches of streams and fields, served up with simple and quaffable vin de pays. ‘Twas this type of cooking that lead the famed food critic Curnonsky, writing on the eve of WWII, to crown Lyon as “the culinary capital of the world”—and indeed, it’s been the birthplace of many a Michelin-honored chef, from Alain Chapel up in Mionnay and the Frères Troisgros over in rural Roanne, to a young Paul Bocuse cooking his nouvelle cuisine at Collonges-au-Mont-d’Or.

Bocuse, like many parvenus after the war, spent his formative years bouncing around a type of kitchen peculiar to Lyon—that of the Grandes Mères and their cousins, Les Tantes. These formidable women operated establishments known as porte-pots, where the proles would congregate at lunchtime to munch on some saucissons and down a jug or two of wine. In the evenings, wayward travelers could enjoy a homespun meal of country pork with potatoes, or calf’s liver fried in hot butter and served with sweated onions and a dash of vinegar. A woman called La Mère Guy opened up the first of these guignettes in 1759, slopping up bowlfuls of eel stew fresh from the Saône; and by the turn of the 20th century, her legacy was in full swing thanks to cooks like Marie Bourgeois, whose rustic tables overflowed with summer wildflowers and autumn game, and La Mère Blanc, whose honest grub warmed the stomach of many a traveling poultryman peddling his poules in Vonnas. And down on Lyon’s old rue Duquesne, La Mère Fillioux liked to carve her fowls tableside with her own hulking kitchen cleavers. “Two of these knives,” the British food writer Elizabeth David would later recount, “lasted her for 30 years, during which time she must have cut up some 500,000 chickens.”

The most famous of all of these bonnes mères was a woman who borrowed heavily from Mother Fillioux’s recipes, thanks to a brief stint in the older madame’s employ: La Mère Brazier, otherwise known as Eugenie, a country girl from the hillocks outside Bresse who ended up becoming the first woman in France to win three Michelin stars—and the first French chef of either sex to attain six for her restaurants on rue Royale and in the Alpine foothills at Col de la Luère. So popular was her cooking that Charles de Gaulle and Valèry Giscard d’Estaing counted themselves as fans, while film stars like Marlene Dietrich made treks to sample her Langouste Belle Aurore, a whole sweet lobster drenched in brandy and cream. At the height of her fame, Brazier could easily have uprooted for ritzier digs in Paris or abroad—she fielded offers from the likes of the Aga Khan and Manhattan’s Waldorf Astoria to cook for global titans—but she remained loyal to the Rhône-Alpes region where she first flourished and whose rhythms and rituals circumscribed her long life.

La Mère Brazier’s legacy—along with 300 of her favorite recipes—were captured in interviews with her close friend Roger Moreau in the late ‘70’s, then published in cookbook-cum-autobiography form in 1977, shortly after she passed away. It inspired a generation of foodies—Bill Buford once listed it as one of the tomes he’d like to have with him on a desert island—and it’s just been reissued in English by Rizzoli as La Mère Brazier: The Mother of Modern French Cooking. In a forward to the new edition, Bocuse reminisces about how he showed up on Brazier’s doorstep one day in 1946, a gadabout just demobilized from La Résistance and eager to learn a trade. “La Mère was a tough and modest woman who knew instinctively how to select the best of us, in the same way that she picked the best produce,” he writes. “Work was the rule of the house. First to rise, last to sleep, nothing passed her eagle eye. Above all, she wanted everything to be done à la maison, even the electricity—no mean feat, that. So I learned to milk cows, chop wood, garden, do the washing, ironing, look after the wine cellar…the menus hardly ever changed, but were always perfectly executed.”

Brazier was feared for her ferocious tempers and respected for her exacting standards. “So fastidious was the inspection of ingredients and their provenance,” the book tells us, “her chicken supplier quipped that he would soon have to give his cockerels a manicure before bringing them up to her.” Nothing went to waste under her roof—after each night’s dinner service, she’d sweep through the refrigerators and cold rooms, collecting produce past its prime and feeding the scraps to her beloved pigs.

La Mère’s thrifty nature was surely a result of her parsimonious childhood, growing up on a hardscrabble farm off the main road between Bresse and Pont-d’Ain. By the age of five, Eugenie was tasked with minding the pig herds, rising before dawn to keep an eye on the snuffling porkers. By mid-morning, her mother would bring her and the other field hands a vigorous breakfast soup of leek broth and vegetables simmered in milk and water. “You whisked in, hard, some egg white and then poured it, bit by bit, onto the yolks in a bowl,” Brazier later recalled. “You mixed it up well, then poured it over big chunks of bread in a soup bowl and let it soak for a few moments before tucking in.” After the meal, her mother would wet a dishtowel on the damp clover—for they had no money to buy soap—and scrub the little girl’s face clean. When she was thirsty, Eugenie would drink cool water from the cow trough; when she was bored, she’d sneak away to catch a glimpse of the exotic pétrolouses, usually early Dion-Bouton models, roaring along the rural roadways. She went to school only in the winter, when it was too cold to let the pigs run loose, and left by age 10 after her mother died unexpectedly. “In my life I have met and conversed with many intellectuals [and] sophisticates,” she often said, “and I have always been mindful of who I am.”

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Half-orphaned, Eugenie was sent to a larger farm to learn to cook and clean. Her yearly wages were a pair of a clogs and one new dress. Days were spent learning to make butter and cheese—“precious products, and the surest source of cash for us peasants”—and fêting the various foires and saint’s festivals, like the feast of St. Martin that marked the end of harvesting season, otherwise known as “the day of the pig.” It was a tradition Brazier later carried on at Col de la Luère: on the night of November 10, the amplest animal would be selected and sacrificed. After bleeding the beast, it was cleaned in boiling water and scrubbed; its gruff hair removed; and then the carcass hung up by the hind legs to prepare for the carving. Haunches, loins, trotters, ears, even the blood—every part of the piggy went into the lavish meal for guests the next day, when le tout Lyon followed the savory smell of spit-roasted meat, carried south through beech groves by the brittle wind, to its source at La Mère Brazier’s cheerful chalet. Around that time, and always by St. Hubert’s day, Brazier would also hang up the season’s first woodcocks in the cellar—still fat from their flush autumn forages—to lay in store for her bécasse rôtie, a fine dish to warm the long winter nights that gloamed ahead.

These were the years before the great wars, when the calendar turned around the Catholic rites and the next village over could seem a world away. To read Brazier’s recollections of that vanished time is to be transported into a storybook world of dark Ardêche forests and the lonely wastes of the Haut Pays—a world of superstitions and raw elements, where shepherds tended their transhumant flocks and vagabonds and criminals ranged along the blasted mountain passes. We are in the world of Jean Giono here, the novelist of High Provence, some 50 leagues south of Brazier’s own bucolic farm. In Ennemonde, Giono describes in larded detail the very time of year that Brazier references in her book—the days of the slaughter, when each fermier summoned an executioner (ideally drawn from the itinerants who haunted the remote canyons—“le tueur, race aristocratique, est précisément un de ces errants”) to test the mistral, regard the moon and then fix the time of death:

“Professional butchers are not good killers. The beasts do not accept the type of death they bring; yet they accept the kind that the wanderer brings. If the butcher arrives at the farm, even if it’s just a matter of a simple friendly visit, the ewes, the sows and even the henhouse erupt in cacophony. But the wanderer arrives with his knives—everything is calm; there’s just a little bit of lowing and rustling when the final moment approaches. If one wants to understand what drives this strange behavior, it eventually becomes clear that it’s a matter of pure ceremony; whether one’s body is promised to sausages or to resurrection, death is the moment when nature gallops back into the world. Now, for the butcher, it’s an issue of pure technique, nothing counts for him beyond the relationship between pounds of flesh, pounds of silver. But the wanderer arrives out from the depths of time—he lives with his arms clasped tightly around hunger. One knows that, with him, the rites will be respected: and, in fact, everything happens with a rapidity, a facility, a politeness to be envied. Already, the animal bleeds into the bucket like a keg whose tap has been opened with the greatest ease in the world.”

Giono’s tales and Brazier’s cooking spring forth from the same terroir, that teeming pocket of France bounded by the Rhône to the south, flowing past wild sunburnt vines down to the bright Mediterranean; the craggy Alps and Chartreuse Mountains to the east; the charcoaled plateau of Clermont-Ferrand to the west; and gentle Burgundy to the north, with its noble dukedoms and even nobler crus. From this abundant larder, La Mère Brazier crafted her most delectable concoctions: carp and crayfish from the Morvand to drown in a thick béchamel; monkfish and turbot to simmer in a good red Chambertin; perch and river trout to add to the stout “Saône poacher’s stew.” Also from the eddying rivers came pike, served with a piquant beurre blanc or pounded and whipped into La Mère’s famously fluffy quenelles, which she liked to bathe in a delicate velouté flavored with langoustine shells. From Burgundy, she borrowed her snail preparation—dousing the escargots in liberal amounts of white wine and butter—while the tramontane pastures provided her with Fondue Savoyarde, a bubbling cauldron of melted Comté, Beaufort and Emmental dotted with truffles and Kirsch. Closer to home, Mâconnais meadows delivered up pheasants, partridges and thrush, to be stuffed with goose livers and bacon and cooked until blistering; while the birch woods yielded ripe red strawberries for summer desserts and, in the colder months, venison and hulking wild boar, which Brazier would marinate for two full days in a luxurious white wine before wrapping the rumps in bacon for a long, slow braise. Nothing says October more than a dish like that—one can practically inhale the smoke and the chestnuts off the salty side of chevreuil, smell the dying leaves in the gamey pâté de sanglier, see the last late grapes darkening on scarlet vines at the bottom of a glass of grand Burgundy that will surely accompany such a sumptuous supper.

Speaking of vines, Brazier peppers her book with wine pairings—nothing fancy, mind you, just a basic Pouilly-Fumé tasting of flint and sea for those briny quenelles, or a fruity Beaujolais, the inoffensive local grape, to sip with homey onion soup. Of course, every so often, a hedonistic dish calls for an equally epicurean bottle, and so we find that she prefers sweet Riesling with her fresh foie gras and an opulent Meursault for the Lobster Américaine. The pheasant calls for Pommard, while songbirds and hare lend themselves to aged Bordeaux or a light Gevrey. Hard-caught game gets something feral and gnarled—Côte-Rôtie or a leathery Hermitage. On a very rare occasion—for quelque chose as peculiar as eels or stuffed prunes—she’ll ditch all propriety and recommend ruby port or a fizzy Alsatian beer.

Yet here’s a surprise: Brazier counsels Beaujolais nouveau for her most famous dish, though anyone in their right mind would be forgiven for turning to an elegant Pinot instead: volaille demi-deuil, a plump Bresse chicken “in half-mourning,” baked with rounds of truffles slipped under its skin. (If life has such a thing as an apotheosis, it surely involves truffled capon.) In La Mère Brazier’s version—which most everyone agrees she adapted from La Mère Fillioux—she stuffs the young bird in a pig’s bladder and then poaches the meaty vessel until tender. “Prick the bladder with a needle every so often,” she advises sagely, “to keep it from exploding.” From the leftover stock, Brazier would render a sort of chicken soup on steroids—a luxuriant broth enriched with egg yolks and thick cream, to be supped with a julienne of truffles first engorged in a glass of aged Cognac.

Brazier’s best dishes were the height of indulgence, a far cry from the first meals she learned to cook at the farmhouse—corn porridge and barboton, a provincial potato gratin. With these meager recipes in her pocket, she moved to the big city at age 20, a single mother with a baby son and few cosmopolitan skills. She worked as a domestic and a nanny for a wealthy family, then secured a job as a washerwoman chez Mère Fillioux. There, Brazier first peered through a window into the wider world—when Lyon’s rich and powerful dropped in, Fillioux would greet them in a majestic dress whose train was so long, it left patterns in the sawdust coating the dining-room floor. Though Brazier never got a chance to cook in Fillioux’s kitchen, she was a keen observer and absorbed enough lessons to open her own business over on rue Royale in 1921 at the age of 26. For her inaugural menu, she planned crayfish with mayonnaise, pigeon with peas, and an apple brioche flambéed in rum. The menu was worth five francs. It was an instant hit.

Before long, Brazier’s popularity surpassed her mentor’s. Dishes like her scrumptious salad of artichokes and foie—a symphony of earthen silkiness—won her legions of loyal patrons, and, in 1933, three Michelin stars. A few years later, World War II broke out, bringing upsets to Eugenie’s clientele. Her most loyal customer, Edouard Herriot—Lyon’s longtime mayor and thrice France’s prime minister—was exiled for his opposition to the Vichy regime. (Now he’s often remembered for his famous denial of the Holodomor—“When one believes that the Ukraine is devastated by famine, allow me to shrug my shoulders”—at the height of Stalin’s cruelty towards the kulaks.) Brazier herself spent a stint in prison during those years, though she doesn’t expound upon the cause, and she also mentions a peculiar episode in which a plainclothes soldier showed up to eat at her inn. She mistook him for a servant and fed him kindly; later, she found out that the man was a top advisor to a major general. Brazier always refused to name the fellow—or to elaborate as to whether he was fighting for, or against, the Germans.

But Brazier’s book does not dwell on the war so much as celebrate its end and the easing of a decade of rations. After the Armistice, Brazier hosted one of her popular pig roasts at Col de la Luère, hiring a clown and a marching band. Her friends all got drunk and sang the Marseillaise. Before long, that weekend outpost had also won three stars, making La Mère one of the most famous cooks in all of France—not bad luck for a self-taught farm girl from lower Burgundy.

Ultimately, one of the cookbook’s outstanding charms is that it manages to transmit Brazier’s spirit—her campagnarde straightforwardness, her profound ties to the soil and the seasons, her imposing stolidness (she was not, as Ponge said of his oysters, de la grosseur moyenne, proving the maxim that one should never trust a skinny chef)—in a way that makes it clear how rare such things have become. “She was an anti-big restaurant, anti-big cuisine person,” said Christian Millau of Gault-Millau fame at the time of Brazier’s death. A simple woman with a sensational mission—the creation of pure savory delight. To thumb through these pages is to be transported across an ocean and back in time to a roaring fire and a crowd of fellow convives gathered around Brazier’s hefty wooden tables, ready to tuck into her milk-suckled pig. It is to be transported back to a France that rarely exists any more, if at all, but in the imagination and in these types of books.

For so many of these sybaritic recipes are wholly impractical for the modern home chef. Who but the wealthiest of gourmands, looking to wow their bored friends, could have the kitchen space and the wherewithal to attempt the Poulet au Sang, a fowl simmered in its own hot blood, or the chicken stuffed with calf’s brain? Brazier also had a thing for feet—stewing sheep’s hooves with tomatoes and garlic for the Pieds-paquets Marseillais—and whole animal heads, whether that of a bristly marcassin (stuffed with veal meat and pork neck) or a young calf (“be sure it is fresh, because all offal can quickly smell bad”) or tiny, crunchy quails served beak-on atop “nests” made of crispy potatoes.

Still, we’re not reading Brazier’s memoirs and recipes because we want a quick fix for a simple snack. We read them because her life and creations are a passport to a land—là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté—of lavish delights, bubbling broths and the most hedonistic victuals. It’s a fine place to be for a few pleasant hours and, perhaps, a few indulgent meals.